On the River Esk, at the heart of Carlisle’s Northern Borderlands lies Longtown. Its quiet, unhurried appearance belies its turbulent pasts once the centre of The Debatable Lands. Centuries of border warfare have left a fascinating legacy and a wealth of history and heritage.

Debatable Land

Known as the Debatable Land because neither England nor Scotland had ever decided who owned it there were virtually no laws and this made it a stronghold for those who made their living from extortion, kidnapping and rustling. Expert horsemen on the wild and treacherous terrain the Border Reivers fought each other, anything that wasn’t theirs they stole, anything they couldn’t steal they burned, and anyone who tried to stop them they killed.

They had names like Nebles Clem, Geordie, Jock Pott the Bastard, Fingerless Will and Buggerback – but what really struck terror into honest; god fearing folk were their surnames. Armstrong, Elliot, Graham, Bell, Nixon, Routledge: these were just some of the names of the Reiver families who fought each other for control of the lawless lands on either side of the border.

The beginning of the end of the Reivers came in 1603 and it was largely self- inflicted. When news of Queen Elizabeth’s death reached the north the Reivers embarked on a weeklong orgy of ransacking and plundering. Known as “Ill Week” this outbreak of anarchy shocked the authorities in London, in particular the new monarch James 1. He unleashed a series of hammer blows against the Reivers that in just a couple of years had all but wiped them out.

All wanted men were hunted down and executed without trial. Carrying weapons was forbidden. The once indestructible Armstrong’s and Grahams were hit hardest, their strongholds wiped out and their leaders on the run or the end of a rope. Many left the area for a new life abroad, in Ireland or America.

Those that survived the purges clung on in their former lands. Some even profited from the new order. In the 400 years since they roamed the borderlands as murderous outlaws the great Reiving families have produced some of the most famous and infamous names in recent history, from preachers to presidents, winners of the World Cup and even the first man who walked on the moon!

Famous Reiver Surnames

  • Armstrong
  • Beattie
  • Bell
  • Carlyle
  • Carruthers
  • Charlton
  • Dacre
  • Dodd
  • Elliot
  • Forster
  • Graham
  • Hall
  • Henderson
  • Hetherington
  • Hodgson
  • Hunter
  • Irvine
  • Jameson
  • Johnstone
  • Kerr
  • Laidlaw
  • Liddle
  • Little
  • Milburn
  • Musgrave
  • Nixon
  • Noble
  • Oliver
  • Ridley
  • Robson
  • Routledge
  • Rutherford
  • Salkeld
  • Scott
  • Storey
  • Taylor
  • Thompson
  • Turnbull
  • Yarrow

Netherby Hall

Built on the site of a Roman station, this became the stronghold of the Grahams in the 15th century. At the height of their reiving activities, a fortified tower house, built with stone from the Roman structure, stood on the site from which the clan conducted its operations in the Debatable Land. Its current appearance dates back to the 1830s.The Hall is mentioned in Sir Walter Scotts 1808 poem Lochinvar in which the gallant hero sweeps of Ellen, daughter of the Halls owner, on her wedding day.

Arthuret Church

Dedicated to St Michael and All Angels, was built in 1609 although it dates back to at least 1150. It was funded by public subscription during the reign of King James 1st and Charles 1st. The earliest church on this site may have been built in the 6th century, possibly even as early as the Second.

Archie Armstrong, the favourite court jester to James 1st and Charles 1st, who lived in the area, is buried there.
The site, once known as Arthurs Head, could be the final resting place of King Arthur who was thought to have died in 537AD at the Battle of Camlann on Hadrians Wall, thought to be Castlesteads. Arthuret is thought to be the site of the great Battle of Ardderyd, in the year 573AD. It was a battle between Christanity and Paganism in which the Christian forces won complete victory over the pagans extending their territory to Dumbarton on the Clyde. According to the Welsh annals the battle continued for 6 weeks after the death of the pagan chief to avenge his death. At the end of the battle there was said to be 80,000 casualties.

Nearby is the site of the Battle of the Solway Moss in 1542 when almost 15,000 Scots under James V came across a force of just under 2,000, mostly local Reivers from the Debatable Lands. The Scots were looking to revenge an earlier attack on the border towns of Kelso and Roxburgh. On the way they plundered various farmsteads in the Debatable Lands most belonging to the Grahams.

The English commander Thomas Wharton mobilised the Reiver families in the area including the Bells and the Routledge’s who were loyal to the English king. The Scots crossed the Esk and were immediately in difficulties, hemmed in by the bank on one side and bogged down by the Solway Moss swamp on the other. A 2,000 strong force of Reiver horsemen armed with broadsword and lance, with their “steele bonnets” glinting in the morning sunlight set about slaughtering the Scots. The battle was over in less than an hour, as the Scots fled they were met by members of the Grahams who had a score to settle, Of James 15,000 strong army only a couple of thousand made it back. Most of the Scottish nobility were held prisoners by the English.

Bobbin Mill

The bobbin mill was built in 1851, employing 90 workers turning bobbins by hand for use in the cotton industry. With the introduction of new machinery the number fell to half that number by 1893. Netherby Estates provided the birch to make the bobbins; these were then transported by horse and cart to the nearest railway station. The bobbin mill closed in 1936 and is now an open green space on the corner of Mill Street.

Graham Arms Hotel

The Graham Arms Hotel, amid 18th century inn, on the corner of Swan Street and English Street, was built by Dr. Robert Graham of Netherby to accommodate travellers. The mail coaches for London and Edinburgh left from here each day. The stables at the rear were used by the post horses. Dorothy and William Wordsworth stayed here during 1803.

Robert Burns visited Longtown several times, once on his Border Tour and while employed as an excise man on the Solway. His brother, William, lived in Longtown in 1789.

Bridging the Esk

The red sandstone bridge across the River Esk was completed in 1756 following a long campaign by local landowners, merchants, businesses and farmers. A large amount of the total cost to build the bridge, estimated at £876, was raised by voluntary contributions. A petition was presented to the General Quarter Sessions in Carlisle on 2nd May 1753. When £300 was awarded towards the cost, this came with the condition that the county be indemnified against all future repairs. Robert Graham of Netherby was paid the sum with a further £100 being agreed on 9th April 1755 making a total of £400 paid out of the county public stock for bridges fund. The conditions of the order of 1753 stipulated that: “The inhabitants of the parishes of Arthuret, Kirkandrews on Esk must, at their own cost, repair, amend, maintain, support, uphold and keep the bridge and all the pillars, arches, staples, pavements, works, battlements and causeways in, upon, about or at the end of the bridge. A further condition was that “All the Kings subjects should at all times be permitted to pass over the bridge on horseback,, on foot, or with carts or other carriages as over any other public bridge without any lawful hindrance or molestation on payment of any toll, duty or extractions.”

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